Hideko Maehata after winning gold in Berlin
Hideko Maehata waving to the crowd after winning gold in Berlin

It was a slight, perhaps. The first and most famous of films about the Olympics – Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, entitled Olympia, did not include the winner of the women’s 200-meter breast stroke. That’s because the winner was a Japanese, Hideko Maehata, who beat out a German named Martha Genenger.

But that’s OK. When Maehata returned to Japan after her gold-medal winning performance in Berlin, she was a national celebrity. Eight other Japanese won gold medals at the Berlin Games, but they may not have gotten the media attention that Maehata did. As Robin Kietlinski explains in her seminal book, Japanese Women and Sport, national radio was bringing the world to all of Japan, led by Nihon Hoso Kyokai, or NHK. Established in 1924, Maehata’s race was one of the first events to be covered live, broadcasted to Japan via satellite.

And according to Kietlinski, they had the man who brought the excitement of the moment alive for Japanese listeners – Kasai Sansei – whose shrieks of excitement and shouts of “Maehata ganbare” brought the swimming stadium of the Imperial Sports Field in Berlin to the homes of people all across Japan. In this NHK documentary, Maehata’s cousin, Tomizo Hase, was asked about his recollections of listening to that famous radio broadcast:

We were all nervous, out palms sweating. We said to each other, we really hope she wins. There were about 10 people inside and many more outside. What a heavenly feeling it was. Some of us cried in joy, saying she’s done great.

In her book, Kietlinski provides a transcript in English of that broadcast. To listen in Japanese and get the sense of excitement Japanese felt in 1936, go to the 25 second mark of the video below.

Maehata and Genenger are side by side. Ah, Maehata pulls ahead! She’s in the lead! She’s a little bit ahead. Fifty meters down. 100 meters down. Fifty meters left to go. Maehata is a little bit ahead! Ah, Genenger is coming. Come on, come on! Maehata is in danger, she’s in danger! Go for it! Maehata go for it!

They turned, the swimmers just now turned and Maehata holds onto a slight lead. C’mon Maehata. Go for it! (Repeated four more times) Forty meters left to go. (Repeated four times) Maehata is ahead! Maehata is ahead! Genenger is coming. It’s just a very small lead by Maehata. Go for it Maehata! (Repeated four times) Twenty-five meters left to go! Maehata’s lead is small, it’s very small! Maehata! Go for it Maehata! (Repeated eleven times)

Maehata is in the lead! (Repeated six times) Five meters left to go! Four meters left! Three meters, two meters. Maehata is ahead! Maehata has won! (Repeated eighteen times) By a small margin Maehata is the champion! Thank you Ms Maehata, the Japanese flag will fly today. Thank you! For the first time in the history of women’s swimming the Japanese flag will fly.

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Chief Priestess, Aleca Katselli igniting the Sacred Olympic Flame at the Temple of Zeus, from the book,
Chief Priestess, Aleca Katselli igniting the Sacred Olympic Flame at the Temple of Zeus, from the book, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency”

On August 21, 1964. the Priestesses of the ancient Temple of Zeus in Athens lit the Sacred Olympic Flame in a bowl using the rays of the sun. The torch was then transported to the site of the Ancient Olympics, where King Constantine II of Greece waited for it with IOC President Avery Brundage and Daigoro Yasukawa, President of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. Chief Priestess, Aleca Katselli lit the Olympic Torch from the sacred flame, handing it to the King, who handed it to the first runner, George Marcellos, who was the Greek 110-yard hurdle champion. And off he went, initiating the torch on a multi-country, multi-continent relay ending in the National Stadium in Tokyo.

Greek hurdler, George Marcello, takes the first leg of the Torch Relay, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency.
Greek hurdler, George Marcello, takes the first leg of the Torch Relay, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency.

There is no other way to describe this ceremony – except that it feels Olympian.

This ceremony, wrapped in myth and ceremony, actually emerged out of Nazi Germany. Joseph Goebbels, who was Adolph Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda from 1933, saw the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an opportunity to legitimize the German way in the eyes of the world, that life with Germany, under Germany, was good and glorious. And so Goebbels formed an organizing committee inside his propaganda ministry with the mission to extract, as Daniel Brown wrote in his brilliant book, Boys in the Boat, “the maximum propaganda from the games. No opportunity was to be overlooked, nothing taken for granted.”

Brown went on to write, “at one of those meetings, one of Goebbels’ ministers proposed an entirely new idea – a potent bit of imagery designed to underscore what the Third Reich saw as its ancestral roots in ancient Greece – a torch relay to carry a flame from Olympia in Greece all the way to Berlin.”

And so since 1936, the Olympic Torch Relay has been a permanent fixture in the ritual of the Olympic Games.

See this short clip of